Partners in Development: Local Government in India

Partners in Development:
Local Government in India
Since the pre-independence days of British rule, federalism in India has
had two legally and administratively well-established, well-defined governmental
tiers: the Union and the states. India’s 28 states and seven Union
territories are geographically large; many are the size of European countries.
The physical, administrative and social distance between the grassroots
and the Union capital is vast.
Thus, state governments have made use of districts as units of administration.
Presently India has 607 districts. The District Collector, also referred
to as the Deputy Commissioner or the District Magistrate, is the administrative
head, assisted by a number of District Level Officers (DLOs) from
various state government departments. DLOs provide administration and
implement development schemes.
Prior to Indian independence in 1947, some areas passed Village Panchayat
Acts which created councils for rural areas, as well as Municipality Acts which
created municipal bodies in urban areas. Upon independence, the Indian Constitution
made no provision for village panchayats due to the fears that the upper
castes and dominant socio-economic groups or elites would continue to dominate
villages by capturing power in village panchayats if these were made
India 25
important bodies. They were mentioned only in the Directive Principles of State
Policy, which are merely guiding state principles and not legally enforceable.
It was not until the 1958 Balwantrai Mehta Committee Report that rural
community development schemes saw a substantial role for panchayats,
primarily as agencies for development. The Mehta report suggested three
hierarchical tiers – beginning with village panchayats through intermediate
panchayats to district panchayats – with links to the district administration
and to the state government. Many states gave statutory recognition to
their own models of elected Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) as part of a
process of democratic decentralization.
Some state government programs and plans were transferred to panchayat
councils for implementation, though the states could and sometimes did
withdraw them later. The head of each level of panchayat council was in
practice more powerful than the councils themselves. Additionally, state
governments and District Collectors had supervisory powers over the PRIs
and could reject panchayat decisions and even dismiss panchayats.
Through the various Panchayat Acts adopted by state legislatures, the PRIs
were assigned certain powers to raise resources and impose taxation.
Urban India has not had such a hierarchical system of elected bodies. Each
urban area has its own elected council based on size, population and other
provisions made under various states’ Municipal Acts. The municipalities are
not linked in any way to the PRIs. State governments and District Collectors
retain supervisory powers over them. Urban areas also have city development
agencies or urban improvement trusts set up by state governments, with
nominated chairpersons or boards that undertake development projects.
Municipal bodies perform certain “municipal functions,” providing sewage
disposal, street cleaning and lighting, construction bylaws regulating private
building, regulation of parking, registration of births and deaths, etc. A
plethora of state government and quasi-government agencies coordinate
responsibilities with the municipalities. The number of agencies increases in
metropolitan areas, where one or more municipal bodies may be operating.
The District Collector coordinates rural and urban issues wherever state
officials or local urban and rural bodies are involved. The state government
maintains separate departments of rural development, panchayati raj, urban
local self-government and urban development. The Union Government has
corresponding ministries, and the Union Territories also have local selfgovernment
institutions. Some states have also set up regional development
councils, which by and large are creatures of the state governments and
do not have links with urban or rural local bodies.
The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments of 1993 gave constitutional
status to PRIs and municipal bodies. Elections must be held every five years.
States may not postpone elections of local governments by appointing
administrators instead. State level Election Commissions must be set up to
independently conduct local government elections. Other mandatory provi-
26 Rakesh Hooja / George Mathew
sions include proportional reservation of seats for members of Scheduled
Castes and Scheduled Tribes, with no less than one-third of seats reserved
for women at all levels. One-third of municipalities and panchayats at all
levels are to be headed by women though reserved and unreserved seats
change with each election. State governments must also set up financial
commissions to suggest methods for devolution of funds.
The character of India’s federal polity remains unaltered, however, since
local government remains an exclusive state subject. Nor have constitutional
amendments done much to change the mindset of the population
regarding local bodies. The constitutional amendments identified functions
that could be transferred from state legislatures to PRIs or municipal
bodies. In reality, these transfers have been slow and partial and sometimes
not made at all, especially since politicians and officials at federal and state
levels often perceive themselves as competing with elected representatives
of panchayats and municipalities.
The 74th amendment provided for three types of urban bodies: nagar
panchayats for transitional areas being transformed from rural to urban;
municipal councils for small urban areas; and municipal corporations for
large urban areas. Unlike PRIs, there is no hierarchy for these bodies and
no formal relationship between them.
Local governments are entirely executive in nature, dependent upon state
governments for funds, functionaries and functions. All local self-government
institutions are fiscally weak, though some municipalities have a healthier
bottom line than rural panchayats. Rural governments depend solely upon
Union and state governments for resources. Furthermore, most of the
resources provided to local bodies are tied to government programs and
guidelines. A major issue today is coordination
between levels of government.
Constitutional amendments have significantly
increased the number of representatives now
elected to local bodies. Reservation of electoral
seats for underprivileged peoples and women
has led to a deepening of democracy and greater
empowerment of the people. The position of
women in rural areas improved significantly
following three rounds of elections with reservations
earning them increased representation in
local bodies. The Union and state governments
also arrange for regular training and capacity-building for elected representatives,
many of whom may be illiterate or not well educated.
India’s panchayats and municipalities have long functioned as instruments
of developmental and related programs of the Union and state governments.
They are moving gradually toward fulfilling their Constitutionallyenvisioned
roles as genuine institutions of local governance.
Reservation of electoral
seats for
peoples and
women has led
to a deepening
of democracy and
greater empowerment
of the people.